A World of Weeds and Wounds

a00e8-pipeflowers

In an October 1998 essay in Harper’s Magazine, David Quammen proposes the idea of  “weedy” species: “scrappers, generalists, opportunists. They tend to thrive in human-dominated terrain because in crucial ways they resemble Homo sapiens, aggressive, versatile, prolific and ready to travel.”

As humans construct and expand their built environment, the natural world becomes increasingly depauperate with wild, native species giving way to adventitious weedy species able to take advantage of and even thrive in degraded environments. Through species extirpation and extinction, biodiversity is decreased, leaving only those species dependent on humans and/or those that can survive in spite of human domination.

Here in Santa Cruz, our City and County officials are overwhelmed by crime, gangs, “homelessness” and general disrespect for law and order, as a result of unlimited population growth. City and County officials seek to solve the problems brought on by population growth by encouraging even more population growth, and resulting development of the tiny bit of remaining natural land that makes Santa Cruz such an attractive place to live, work and play.

City and County bureaucrats and elected officials cannot see what some of us see when we look at Jesse Street Marsh, the San Lorenzo River, the Arana Gulch Greenbelt, Pogonip, Moore Creek, County beaches and mountains. They see only problems with price tags attached. To them, environmental protection and restoration costs money and does not solve the problems that reflect on their job performance and/or their re-election.

“Activating” natural areas is bureaucrat speak for social engineering to cause the problems to move elsewhere, somewhere less “activated,” the next place to be stripped of its native vegetation, its wildlife driven off, its water diverted to human uses, it’s air filled with noise.

The ultimate outcome is that human growth and development inevitably diminishes natural areas to the point that we live in a world of weeds and wounds. It’s to the point that there are really no “natural” areas left. Even “wilderness” is conceived of and formed by human intervention.

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” ― Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

It is the job of those of us who see the marks of death in our world of wounds and weeds to speak out, whether others want to be told or not.

Native flowers and invasive humans

Yellow Starthistle (Centaurea solstitialis)

Mentzelia laevicaulis, Smoothstem blazing star, Mono Lake, California, July 2016

Tramping across the sagebrush flats overlooking Mono Lake, we encountered two of these startling native wildflowers in bloom, surrounded by other nondescript plants, crumbled tufa and the decaying remains of past agricultural failures.

Despite all attempts by invasive humans to wipe out anything and everything natural, including Mono Lake itself, these showy wildlflowers burst into bloom, adding bright spots of color to the otherwise sear and arid scene.

Mono Lake continues to reflect the endless sky, thanks to dedicated activists who stopped the citizens of Los Angeles, 350 miles away, from flushing it all down their toilets. The lake is still lower than in the past, but it is no longer threatened to become the twin of what once was Owens Lake further south, now an empty basin full of dry alkali dust that takes to the air at the slightest puff of wind. Though much was lost, much remains, though much was lost.

Human folly knows no bounds. Building a major city in the arid southwest was a bad idea to begin with, made possible only by the artificially cheap energy necessary to pipe water over two major mountain ranges to water the desires of acquisitive developers. The city continues to grow, despite the inescapable fact that there is no more water to be stolen from its natural habitat and all species that live there. The vapid economic aspirations of Homo sapiens preclude any consideration of other species, the inescapable future and the nature of physical reality itself. That which cannot go on forever, doesn’t.

Meanwhile, the smooth stem blazing star continues to bloom around Mono Lake, celebrating life, patiently waiting for more recent upstart species to learn the lessons of evolution and rejoin the eternal dance.

 

Reflections on Mono lake

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It’s a calm foggy day here on the Left Coast. We’ve just returned from an all too brief visit to the Mono Basin bioregion, that internal drainage on the East Sierra pockmarked with the ancient detritus of momentarily quiescent  volcanoes.

Mono Lake is a history lesson in the futility of living out of place. It seems that in the 1880s s few gold miners, disgruntled with the hard work of extracting reluctant gold ore from the mountain sides thereabouts, decided instead to raise food for the hungry miners at Bodie and Lundy. Flowing down the slopes from the surrounding mountains are a number of cool, effervescent streams plunging uselessly into the alkali waters of Mono Lake. Why not put them to good use, build a ditch, divert their waters to the sagebrush covered slopes of the ancient lake bed and farm the land around the lake?

The hard rock miners of the eastern Sierra were evidently little practiced in the art of irrigation ditch construction. They neglected to test the soils of their project area for permeability, and when their wheezing steam shovel had completed its work and the waters of Rush Creek turned loose into the ditch, they quickly soaked into the soil, never to reach their intended agricultural destination.

Not to be deterred, farmers arrived and rearranged the landscape anyway. They chained the useless sagebrush from the land, redirected existing drainages, built their houses and barns and raised crops and livestock for the hungry miners gazing down from their serene and garden free heights.

As we walked the trails slanting down to the tufa decorated lake shore, we came across the leavings of this temporary agricultural community: lengths of heavy chain among piles of dried sagebrush branches, assorted tin cans, bottles, broken glass, car parts and car bodies spotted with bullet holes, an occasional remnant of a log structure, and the Refrigerator Tufa, a hollow stone edifice that once contained a running spring, where farmers kept their perishables in its cool, bubbling interior.

Fortunately for the natural world that remains, hard rock mining petered out in the area in the 1940s. Lundy largely disappeared, and Bodie became a ghost town, visited by desert rats and curious touristas, a lesson in living in place gone bad. The shelf above Mono Lake returned to its dominant sagebrush ecosystem, hiding the leftovers of abandoned human endeavor.

Unfortunately for the local ecosystem and the humans who visit it, Mono Basin has been taken over by the Forest Circus and renamed the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area. This misplaced agency of the Department of Agriculture treats all of its lands as croplands, and, judging by the singular lack of forest in Mono Basin, Forest Circus bureaucrats are unsure of their own responsibilities.

On our return walk from the tufa-bedecked shoreline of Mono lake, we climbed the hill to the fortress-like Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center, therein to be numbed to speechlessness by shabby human interpretations of the real world beyond its expensive, official government walls and windows.

One exhibit outshone all the rest, a collection of photographs of the area that was hidden away in a dark corner of the exhibit hall beyond a closed door with a tiny sign legible only in close proximity. The exhibit featured classic black and white photographs by photographers and observers of the Mono Lake area, including Ansel Adams and the Weston brothers, Brett and Cole. Unfortunately, the placement of the photographs in front of floor to ceiling unshielded windows, plus unimaginative and inappropriate lighting, made it virtually impossible to see and appreciate the unexcelled quality of the works on display.

Hitching up my Archival Photography Sheriff’s badge, I approached the three Forest Circus petty bureaucrats lounging insouciantly at the front desk of the tourist emporium, two of them resplendent in official Forest Circus olive tweed, eschewing for the moment their official Smokey Bear hats.

When I inquired about the state of presentation of the photography exhibit, the  two male government officials standing with arms crossed, staring in every direction but mine, inclined their eyebrows toward the third member of their band, a female of the species exhibiting black law enforcement plumage. When I mentioned how difficult it was to see the proffered photographs and how poorly they are presented, she observed, “Yeah, we’ve been trying to get rid of that exhibit for years. There are lots more pictures in storage.”

Apparently, photographs of the landscape in their charge are insufficiently crop-like to engage the limited interests of Department of Agriculture employees posted to this hot, dusty, singularly unagricultural facility.

We gathered the dregs of our disappointment and went back outside, into the real world of Mono Basin, past the unleashed dog peering in the door, past gaily decked out tourists climbing out of their air conditioned SUVs, to our pleasant walk across the sagebrush flats to Lee Vining, our traditional celebratory Frosty Freeze ice cream cone, and an outstanding repast in the Kitchenette at Murphy’s Motel.

Adams Mono Lake

Ansel Adams
Reflections at Mono Lake, California
1948
Gelatin silver print
David H. Arrington Collection
© 2011 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

There’s No Hope

“Opportunities that up-skill, inspire and encourage entrepreneurial thinking in our young people can boost competitiveness and growth in a smart, sustainable and inclusive way.” Dr Susie Mitchell, programme director of Glasgow City of Science.

Source: Budding entrepreneurs aim to tackle air pollution

Where to begin…?

This quote from an article in the Scotsman is so woefully wrong-headed and inextricably mired in impenetrable corporate-speak as to boggle the mind of any reasonable thinking person. It not only reeks of meaningless rhetoric, it is wholly bred and reared in the basic concept of economic growth as the answer to “air pollution” and other environmental ills.

The author of this pitiful statement completely fails to understand that growth is the proximate cause of pollution of air, water and soil, habitat loss, species extinctions and the entire list of environmental problems she proposes to solve. Even worse, she is in the process of inculcating this deadly, mind-numbingly ignorant philosophy into the soft and impressionable minds of young people.

This is a crime against Nature, a denial of cause and effect, an unwillingness to accept the limits to growth of the human species, basic understanding of ecological and evolutionary relationships among all species, and the deleterious effects of human economic growth, resource consumption and expansion onto and into every square inch of non-vertical ground on the planet.

One can only hope that as human “civilization” inevitably declines, the growth maniacs will be the first to feel the effects of destruction of the natural world, “in a smart, sustainable and inclusive way.”

 

Nature’s Way

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Photo by Michael A. Lewis

It is clear to anyone able to rise above the cacophony of modern daily life that the overriding vision of the dominant society, civilization if you will, is dysfunctional. Life based on continually increasing consumption of the components of the natural world is maladaptive, unrealistic and ultimately impossible. Those who die with the most toys not only do not win, they contribute to the overall failure of our species.

Eastern philosophies such as Taoism, Buddhism and Vedanta call this vision a “Way.” The Western Way is exploitation of all ecological niches, as quickly as possible, for the exclusive benefit of one species, Homo sapiens.

An alternative Way, perhaps the Nature Way, would be a vision of humans living as fully cooperative, supportive and contributing members of viable ecosystems, taking no more than our share, such that all species have sufficient resources to lead a full and satisfying life.

Humans have a handicap in this regard. We call it self-awareness, the ability to know who we are, to remember the past and imagine the future. Many humans constantly plan for a future that never arrives, based on memories of the past. Many don’t experience the present moment as the only reality, unaware that the past and the future do not exist.

In reality, the present is the constantly moving interface between what was and what is yet to be.

Many plants and animals store up food sources that are used in times when food is less readily available. This is not done as a result of imagining a future when food might not be available and storing more resources for that eventuality. Instead, plants and animals store food, internally or externally, as an adaptive strategy worked out over millennia of natural selection and evolution.

In this way, plants and animals (except humans) accommodate changing environmental conditions in a complex adaptive process, in concert with all other species in their ecosystem. The success of any one species is dependent on the success of all other species. The failure of any single species affects all other species, as well.

The failure of Homo sapiens to live in a Way that includes other species is already affecting all species, reducing biodiversity world wide, resulting in permanent species loss and disruption of complex ecosystems. Even if the human species does not absolutely fail and go extinct, our present Way is negatively affecting all other species and cannot long continue.

For humans to continue on this Earth, we must develop a vision of ourselves as fully functioning members of viable ecosystems, a part of Nature, not apart from the natural world. We must stop killing the golden goose that bears the source of our species well-being and viability.

This is not an easy task, as our current Way has overwhelming momentum toward the cliff edge overlooking the abyss of extinction. As we stand with our naked toes dangling in the breeze over the edge, we have two choices if we wish to survive: either take a step backwards, or turn around and take a step forward.

We make this change one set of toes at a time. We become the change we wish to see in the world. We build a new vision that makes the existing vision obsolete.

It’s a long process, and sure.

It’s Nature’s Way.

“Invasive” Species

a00e8-pipeflowers
Photo by Michael A. Lewis

 

Our presently dominant culture is based on ever increasing consumption of “natural resources,” that is, water, soil, minerals, air, plants and animals, solely for human use. Ecologists tell us we are now consuming over 1.5 Earths per year, a process that is, by definition, unsustainable (not able to be maintained at the current rate or level).

In addition to killing individual plants and animals, human resource consumption results in habitat loss and thus the generation of species extinctions far beyond that which occurs naturally. Species extinctions leave great holes in the web of life that ripple outward through ecosystems for generations to come. Eventually a dynamic equilibrium is restored among the remaining species, ecological niches are filled and evolution continues.

In ecosystems suffering from growing human consumption, balance among species can never be restored, as member species continue to decline and disappear. In the absence of viable resident species, invasive species, which often have no natural predators or environmental limitations, take over abandoned niches and flourish, at the expense of other species.

Humans dominate ecosystems by overwhelming all other species, through extirpation and domestication. Rather than living within natural environmental cycles and limitations, humans modify or destroy natural habitats and the species that live within them, and replace them with human constructed habitat, exclusively for human use.

Looked at in this light, Homo sapiens is the ultimate invasive species.

Nature, however, always bats last, and humans are beginning to discover that our seemingly overwhelming environmental domination has cracks around the edges, cracks through which invasive species appear in human ecosystems, finding unfilled niches and creating consternation for those chiefly concerned with human control of their environments.

Coyotes move into urban neighbors where cats and small dogs provide a movable feast. “Weeds” (plants that grow where humans don’t want them to) fill in the margins of cultivated fields, take over disturbed habitat and generate their own mini-ecosystems.

Life always finds a way.

One might think that clever humans might find a way to live as resident species rather than invasive species, to thrive in place as cooperative members of the community of life in the ecosystems in which they reside.